While Ron Sexsmith has had little problem establishing his identity as a songwriter with the warm, compassionate intelligence of his lyrics, as a recording artist he’s been a bit harder to pin down. After escaping the tape-loop jungle of Mitchell Froom’s production on his first three major-label albums, Sexsmith has seen his music matched with the roots-oriented pop approach of Blue Boy and the subtle electronic textures of Cobblestone Runway, each successful but in decidedly different ways. At first listen, Sexsmith’s sixth album, Retriever, sounds like an attempt to move back to the style of Other Songs or Whereabouts, but without the production excesses of those sessions; many of the melodies boast ’60s-influenced pop hooks, and Martin Terefe’s production subtly reinforces the Beatlesque qualities of the music, with occasional side trips into the land of ’70s singer/songwriters (“Whatever It Takes” could almost pass for a lost Bill Withers track). But the results have a more open and organic feel than Froom’s thematically similar work, employing real strings and less cluttered arrangements, and Sexsmith sounds quite comfortable in these surroundings. While Sexsmith sounded decidedly awkward and self-conscious as a singer on his early albums, he’s grown into a vocalist who delivers his material with a genuine and compelling commitment on his recent albums, and Retriever sounds like his most confident and accomplished set to date. And as a writer, Sexsmith is still gloriously one of a kind, a man who can write about love without sounding either cloying or bitter, and can document both the bright and dark sides of life with honesty, heart, and clear perception. Most songwriters could go their whole careers without penning a song as strong as “How on Earth,” “Imaginary Friends,” or “For the Driver,” and those are just three of the high points on Retriever; if you know Sexsmith’s work, then you already have a good idea of how good this album is, and if you don’t, this is a fine place to get acquainted. – Mark Demingmore »
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